Mark’s family was always involved with racing. Paul Richards, Mark’s father always told him to stay away from it. “You can never make a living in racing, stay away from it!” were often Paul’s words to Mark.
Mark’s dad went nearly broke racing during the 1950s, so naturally he told Mark to get into a profession that was more reliable. Even after nearly going broke from the sport he loved, Paul was still a huge fan of it. Mark grew up at the race track, every weekend he was at race track somewhere. They would often go to Morgantown Speedway, Interstate Raceway, Pennsboro Speedway and even an asphalt track in Pennsylvania named Heidelberg Raceway. “That’s what I looked forward to was going to the races.” Explained Richards.
Mark was 13 years old when his older brother Roger Richards bought a used dirt late model. Roger had a construction business and was busy with that, so he wanted Mark to work on the car and get it prepared for racing. “Up to that point, I’d never worked on a racecar. So, I started working on it. Next thing I know, we was loading up and going to the track!”
Richards patiently tunes on the front end of the Rocket Chassis House car. RacePix photo
Over time, Roger wanted to get better cars. Roger never drove and always had drivers for the car. The “better” car Roger wanted was a Gary Marks car that was built in Pennsylvania. Current racer and friend Clint Smith’s dad built cars for Roger and Mark. The better cars came with better drivers. Morgan Sheppard, Rodney Combs, Buck Simmons, Bob Wearing are among some of the more notable names. “My brother’s list of drivers is pretty long.” Mark said jokingly.
During that time, Roger convinced Mark’s first true chassis builder mentor, Buddy Parker to move to West Virginia. He came up from the famous Roscoe Smith garage. David Spears who drove for Roger was also quite influential during Mark’s formative years in the sport.
Fellow chassis builder Barry Wright and Mark Richards share a laugh at Portsmouth Raceway Park (Rick Schwallie photo)
Mark and engine builder Andy Durham work on an engine of the Rocket1 at Knoxville
(Rick Schwallie photo)
Richards also drove the cars at times. This was Tim Hitt's Rocket Chassis from early 92.
After financial issues, Roger sold out to two individuals; Dick White and JD Stacy. Stacey was well known for his work in NASCAR during the 70s and 80s. Stacy/White racing retained a 19 year old Mark Richards to manage the team and crew chief the cars. He was also responsible for finding a driver. Mark knew that Rodney Combs was available and he was immediately hired. Combs brought Howe cars along with him for the chassis. The team actually became the Howe Racing house car.
In the late 70s and early 80s Mark worked out of the Howe Racing shop. During that time, Mark received invaluable amount of knowledge in managing the business, warehousing, working with employees and the chassis design. “Whether these chassis builders realize it today or not, but a lot of what they’re doing now came from that shop in Beaverton, Michigan.” (Howe Racing’s location) quoted Richards.
In 1984, right after Jim Dunn was killed; Ed Howe lost interest in dirt racing. Jim was a friend of Mark and Ed’s and it affected Howe deeply. So deeply that he quit dirt racing altogether.
Once the Howe Racing program was discontinued, Mark continued with WRC racecars until the spring of 1986. In the fall of 1986, they built the first building on the current Shinnston shop location and Mark Richards Racing, Inc. (MRRI) was created. During that time, MRRI was a Bullitt Race Cars dealer and repair center from 1986 to 1991.
In 1991, Mark Richards had Ray Callahan (Bullitt Race Cars owner) build two chassis to Mark’s specifications. One of the cars won two races at West Virginia Motor Speedway in the same day. Davey Johnson drove the car and mentioned to Mark, “Mark, this thing comes off the corner like a rocket!” The following week at Pennsboro Speedway the car had Rocket Chassis on the nose.
Another item of note, Mike Balzano had the other chassis Richards design and Mike finished 2nd and 3rd in the same races at West Virginia Motor Speedway.
After winning the races at West Virginia Motor Speedway, Callahan called Richards and told him he wasn’t going to build anymore of the cars that Richards designed. Mark had orders for that new car design and they had to be fulfilled. Besides Richards and Baker, the other employee was Scott who worked with Mark at WRC. Both Scott and Mark knew how to build chassis, so they decided to start building their chassis design in Shinnston, WV.
In the first year, MRRI built 70 chassis. The 2nd year in business they built 140. Fast forward to the mid-2,000s and MRRI was building 300 chassis/year.
5,000 cars later, they are a leader in the dirt late model industry.